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World Consumer Rights Day Debate Series organized by Consumers International

Statement by Rebeca Grynspan, Secretary-General of UNCTAD

World Consumer Rights Day Debate Series organized by Consumers International

14 March 2024

"Fair and Responsible AI for Consumers"

Dear Ms. Helena Leurent, Director General of Consumers International,
Dear Consumers International Members,
Dear friends, happy consumers day to you all.

Today, the conversation around AI very much feels like we are in a Dickens world where he says in the Tale of Two Cities, “It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."As we celebrate World Consumers Rights Day, it is fitting that we reflect on this new area for consumer relations, to ensure that AI is fair and responsible for consumers. UNCTAD, as the focal point on consumer protection within the UN, is committed to understanding the implications of AI for consumer protection. I am delighted to be here with you today.The irruption of artificial intelligence in consumers’ lives has put our societies at cross-roads. As UN Secretary-General Guterres acknowledged, AI has the potential to turbocharge global development, from monitoring the climate crisis to breakthroughs in medical research. It offers new potential to realize human rights, particularly to health and education.For consumers, AI holds a huge promise of welfare, convenience, efficiency and personalization. Indeed, there is even the promise of greater protection itself – a recent UNCTAD report, on the use of online dispute resolution platforms for consumer protection agencies concludes that AI can be instrumental in the optimization of these crucial systems. There is also the famous startup, ‘DoNotPay’, which helps consumers deal with murky claims and invoices through the use of ChatGPT.However, even as we recognize these promises, we must also recognize the many risks and ethical considerations that AI brings. I would highlight two of these.First, there is the risk of being left out. Only 36 per cent of the population in least developed countries is online, and the gender gap in Internet use shows no sign of narrowing. AI will never be fair as long as over 3 billion people cannot access it.And second, there is the risk of abuse. The potential for AI to perpetuate and amplify biases and discrimination, infringe upon privacy, enable widespread scams, and undermine democratic processes is a stark reminder of the ethical quagmire we must navigate. Deepfakes have the potential for misleading consumers on a mass scale. Today, it is already possible to have a deepfaked celebrity promote a deepfaked product, using deepfaked videos and deepfakes voices.These risks highlight the imperative for a new generation of consumer protection policies and regulations; policies designed to mitigate harm and ensure that the vast potential of AI benefits all consumers, fairly and ethically.

Dear friends, at UNCTAD we’ve been busy unpacking the challenges and opportunities that AI holds for consumers. Our informal working group on consumer protection in e-commerce already hosted two webinars on the issue in 2024, one on AI consumer risks and the other on how technology can better enforce consumer law.

Let me highlight four takeaways from these meetings.First, we need to empower both consumers and policymakers through AI literacy. It is no longer enough to know how to read and write and browse the web; we must also understand how AI systems learn, make decisions, and potentially influence our choices.Second, we must support countries in developing national AI strategies that align with global principles, focusing on safeguarding consumer rights and fostering an environment where ethical AI can flourish.Third, we must engage the private sector. I call upon technology companies to adopt ethical AI development practices, prioritizing consumer well-being and societal benefit over short-term gains. This includes committing to transparency in AI algorithms, engaging in responsible data practices, and actively seeking to mitigate biases.And fourth, lastly, we must advocate for a global framework of fair and responsible AI, built upon the three pillars of transparency, accountability, and inclusivity. Transparency in AI algorithms and data practices. Accountability in AI developers and deployers so that they are responsible for the social impacts of their technologies. And inclusivity, in both how AI is developed, and in who can access it.All of these proposals must recognize the crude reality that there is a global governance deficit in AI. This is something that our Secretary General, through the Summit of the Future, wants to change.  The UN’s unique mandate and membership means we must play a central role.  I invite all of you here, to submit your input to the UN High Level Advisory Board on AI to enrich its final report on the issue.Dear friends,History teaches us that groundbreaking technologies always pose challenges alongside opportunities. From the steam engine to the internet, every era of innovation has demanded new rules, new safeguards, and new ways of thinking. AI is no different. What is different is the speed of change. Rapid changes require rapid reactions. Just as previous generations tackled their technological revolutions, let us work tirelessly to ensure that the AI revolution benefits every human being. Let this be our legacy.I wish you all a great World Consumers Rights Day.
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